Israel travels

In the footsteps of a master forger

In 1883, antiques dealer Moses Wilhelm Shapira claimed to possess ancient scrolls of Deuteronomy. The text differed slightly from the accepted version: It had an 11th Commandment

Market in the Old City, leading down from Maronite Convent Road (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Market in the Old City, leading down from Maronite Convent Road (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Six months after the most important archaeological discovery of its time was declared a fake, the man who offered it to the world ended his life with a bullet to the head. His tragic suicide left unsolved one of most fascinating puzzles of the era. Had it really been bogus? Or could Moses Wilhelm Shapira have brought to light the world’s oldest copy of Deuteronomy, only to have it rejected by a battery of experts?

Follow the fortunes of this intriguing figure by taking an imaginary jaunt through the streets of Jerusalem (or a real trip, if you live in Israel). The route begins just inside Jaffa Gate at Christ Church, which was to become Shapira’s home-away-from-home.

It continues on to a Maronite Convent, moves through the cheerful shops on Christian Quarter Road and ends at the gallery/restaurant of Beit Ticho.

Christ Church was the first Protestant church in the entire Middle East, and the only evangelical church in the region. Outwardly resembling a grand European synagogue more than a Christian house of worship, it was erected in 1849 by the London Society for the Promotion of Jews to Christianity for the express purpose of drawing Jews into the Christian fold.

Moses Wilhelm Shapira (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
Moses Wilhelm Shapira (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Before that time, simple proselytizing — and the promise of financial gain — had resulted in very few Jewish conversions; the Protestant Bishopric in Jerusalem hoped that an attractive, accessible church might facilitate the cause.

Church fathers wanted Jews to feel comfortable in the sanctuary, which is why the interior is replete with Jewish symbols.

Jewish students at the workshop manufactured the stunning olive wood communion table, decorated with both a Star of David and the Christian Alpha and Omega.

There were no crosses in the church; the cross on the table appeared in 1948, when Jordanians captured the Old City and Anglicans feared their sanctuary would be mistaken for a synagogue.

Moses Wilhelm Shapira, born Jewish in 1830, was 25 when he left his Russian homeland for the land of Israel.

Somewhere along the way, he converted to Christianity.

And once in the Holy Land, he joined the Anglican community of Jewish converts at Christ Church.

Soon afterwards he began studying at its House of Industry, a unique carpentry workshop set up to teach Jews a profession while instructing them in Christianity.

Christ Church Heritage Center Tunnel (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Christ Church Heritage Center Tunnel (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Today, the Christ Church complex includes a Christian Heritage Center, with historic documents and artifacts, medieval bibles, and contemporary models of the city. On display are a multi-colored 1864 depiction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with removable domes, and a model of the 19th-century Protestant Quarter – both made at the House of Industry workshop. Visitors are invited to descend into a 2,000-year-old water reservoir that leads to an ancient tunnel.

The Maronite Convent, only a few steps away, was built in 1851 as a residence for the British consul. Later, the building was used as a hospital run by a German Lutheran congregation of Deaconess sisters. An average of 650 people were treated here each year. One of the patients was Moses Shapira, who met his future bride, Deaconess nurse Roseta Jackel, by the courtyard well.

In the early 1890s, Maronite Catholics from Lebanon purchased the building. Today it’s the seat of the Patriarchal Vicar, with nuns from the Lebanese Congregation of St. Therese managing the guesthouse.

Maronite Convent Street (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Maronite Convent Street (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Until a very few years ago, anyone could enter the complex and climb up to the second-floor chapel. Originally intended for Protestant use, it was preserved by the Maronites in its original Gothic form. Afterwards, you could ascend to the roof for a breathtaking 360-degree panoramic view of Jerusalem. These days, unfortunately, only lodgers are allowed inside. But you can ring, and ask to see the courtyard.

After completing his course at Christ Church, Shapira opened a shop in the bustling Old City marketplace. The front of the store faced Christian Quarter Road, and the back overlooked a dry reservoir. Called both Hezekiah’s Pool and Batsheva’s Pool, it supplied water to the city 3,000 or so years ago.

Among wares sold in the shop were European newspapers and guidebooks, dried flowers from the Holy Land, and olivewood Bible covers inscribed with verses from the Scriptures. But Shapira’s main source of income came from the sale of antiquities. His shop had opened during an era of intense interest in biblical archaeology, when travelers, both tourists and biblical pilgrims, had begun thronging to the Holy Land. With the help of associate Salim al-Kari, Shapira capitalized on the atmosphere by manufacturing “ancient” artifacts. Some were sold at the shop, but others were buried at strategic sites. Subsequently, the wily Shapira would take tourists out for a “dig” and join in their delight when they made a “discovery.”

Christian Quarter Road (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Christian Quarter Road (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Because he handled authentic artifacts along with his numerous forgeries, established European museums accepted Shapira as a legitimate antique dealer, and respected guidebooks mentioned the shop. But while some contemporary scholars praised Shapira’s daring scavenger hunts in Arab countries and the artifacts with which he returned, others commented scathingly on his various deceptions.

After one such swindle, involving the lucrative sale of 1,700 fake figurines to a Berlin museum, Shapira moved his family into an elegant villa on today’s Rav Kook Street. Jerusalemites know it today as Beit Ticho, named for a prominent Jerusalem couple that resided here for many years. One of the first houses outside of the Old City walls, it was built in the mid-19th century by a rich Arab with an eye for arched doors, domed ceilings, and lush gardens.

Ticho House gardens (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ticho House gardens (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 1883, while dwelling here in luxury, Shapira was involved in a highly publicized scandal. He claimed to have in his possession scrolls of Deuteronomy dating back thousands of years, whose text differed slightly from the accepted version and added an 11th Commandment to the Decalogue. The 11th Commandment, according to the Shapira scroll, was “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: I am GOD, thy GOD.” The report caused a sensation, since the earliest biblical manuscripts at that time were only a few hundred years old.

Shapira offered his find to the British Museum for a million English pounds, and people flocked to the historic display. Then, a month after the opening, the scrolls were exposed as skilled forgeries. One expert found that the language had an Eastern European touch; another was convinced that the strips had been cut off from Torah scrolls only a few centuries old. But Shapira’s main detractor was Charles Clermont-Ganneau, a long-standing adversary who had denounced Shapira on previous occasions as well, and who argued that no scholar in his right mind would believe that parchment could hold up for so many years.

Shapira’s already tarnished reputation was torn to shreds, the Museum cancelled the exhibit, and Shapira disappeared, to be found dead months later in a Rotterdam hotel. The scrolls were sold for a tiny sum and faded from sight.

In 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, well-preserved in a desert cave for 2,000 years. Ever since that time scholars have wondered if Shapira’s scrolls could actually have been genuine. Indeed, perhaps Shapira took his own life not from the shame of worldwide exposure, but because he had held in his hands a momentous discovery that no one would believe was real.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israelfor individuals, families and small groups.

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